The sun beat down on the earth, pummeling it into sweltering submission. It was the dead center of July. All of the animals were taking shelter from the sun’s harsh rays. I couldn’t even see the song birds of summer or hear their beautiful voices. They must have hid away in the dark recesses of their homes where the heat couldn’t reach, safe and comfortable.
Using the back of my hand I wiped away the sweat that was rolling down my brow. Today was a good day to stay inside and enjoy a tall, cold glass of tea with ice clinking off the rim. I pictured the watery condensation leisurely sliding down the sides of a cup and the sharp aroma of mint that my mother always added to our tea. The idea to hide away in the house was tempting; however it was also a perfect day to go out to a beloved pond, known as “Salamander Heaven,” with your best friend. Planning to do just that, I bounced impatiently from foot to foot waiting for Emily to arrive. We have been planning to hangout for weeks now, but with both of busy being high school juniors we could never seem to find the time. But, today we finally could and I couldn’t wait to spend a day relaxing out in the woods.
A few minutes passed before I heard the crunch of tires traveling down the dirt road that lead to my house. Emily was finally here! I ran out to greet her.
“It’s about time you got here! Where’ve ya been?” I said jokingly.
Emily smiled brightly and laughed. “I’m like…” she glanced down at her phone, “a minute late!”
“Whatever” I teased, “Let’s get going! There are salamanders to catch!” Emily nodded enthusiastically and we headed towards the woods behind my house.
The path we took was a familiar one. We’ve traveled it hundreds of times over the many years Emily and I have been friends. The shade the leaves offered as we entered the woods was cool and inviting. They protected and offered us some relief from the harsh rays of the sun. The birds chirped cheerfully, fluttering from branch to branch and all around the croaking love songs of the peepers could be heard. I inhaled a breath, the rich scent of the forest reaching my nose. All the worries of high school dropped away and I finally felt at home. I looked over at Emily as we walked in comfortable silence; her expression showed she was feeling same. Nothing could have been more perfect.
In a short time Emily and I made it to Salamander Heaven. The pungent stagnant smell of the pond was strong, but inviting. As we walked towards the edge salamanders streaked to the center of the pond and frogs jumped into the water, taking refuge in the mud. Electric green algae floated at the surface of the water, hiding unsuspecting creatures from view.
“There,” I whispered, pointing towards a streak of bright orange floating close to shore in the dark water.
Emily nodded and quietly stalked toward the unknowing salamander. She got into position, her body leaned out over the water, arms outstretched, and her hands formed the shape of a cup. She was ready to pounce. I watched Emily prepare for the catch, but something in the corner of my eye caught my attention. Something was in the woods, swiftly moving between the trees—a dark shadow just at the edge of the woods.
When I turned to look, whatever it was had gone. But, I could still feel it watching. I scanned the forest, sure that it was still there. What was it? I was so focused on what could be in the woods I had forgotten about Emily and the salamander until…Splash!! My feet were about two feet off the ground. A squeal, very similar to that of a pig, escaped my lips in a whoosh of air. I turned breathless, my chest heaving. I exhaled a sigh of relief and calmed my nerves. I’m being too jumpy. It was probably just a deer or squirrel. There’s nothing in the woods that can hurt us. I turned to see Emily pulling her hands out of the pond.
“I got it!” she shrieked. Emily ran over, her hands cupped out in front. Water and slimy algae dripped from her fingers. Her open palm revealed a small orange salamander, a set of black spots raced down its back in linear rows. The creature was unconcerned as it leisurely gazed up at Emily and I. Gently I reached out and traced a pinky finger the whole way down to its tail; it didn’t seem to mind.
“You wanna catch one,” Emily asked as she slowly released the salamander in her hand. I followed its movement until it disappeared in the murk.
“You bet!” I said excitedly. I dismissed the “shadow” and made my way over to the opposite end of Salamander Heaven, closer to the woods. Almost immediately there was a noise, a twig snapping. The sound echoed through the trees. I looked to see if Emily had heard the noise. If she did she didn’t let on.
I dared to look behind me into the shaded forest. What in the world? There was a man, just standing there staring at us. I couldn’t look away; it was like a famous actor walked right off the screen and into the woods. He was gorgeous, built like a Greek god, muscled and lithe and just beautiful. My mouth hung open as I gawked, I couldn’t help it. My eyes traveled up to his handsome face, where I was greeted with an attractive smirk. The man lifted his head, his sandy blonde hair falling away from his face and met my eyes with his. I recoiled instantly. They were too intense. His cunning blue eyes traveled between me and Emily, waiting to see which one would run… and he knew we would.
We have to get out of here. I turned to get Emily, who still hadn’t noticed what was happening,
“Emily,” I whispered, barely audible to my own ears. The man cocked his head to the side, listening like a dog, his ears picking up my words. I knew he had heard even though he was well out of range. His lips peeled back into a snarl revealing sharp pointed canines. Wait. What? This is so wrong! I thought. I was done trying to be cautious. I wanted to be safe from whatever that man was.
“Emily! Run!” She didn’t have time to respond. I grabbed her arm, hauling her away from the predator. Our feet pounding the ground, my heart thudded in my chest and I could hear the roar of blood and adrenaline in my ears.
“What’s going on,” Emily asked breathless, her eyes wide with panic.
“Just don’t stop running! Get out of the woods and don’t you dare look back!” I demanded as we pushed aside underbrush that seemed determined to slow us down.
I didn’t have to look to know that the man was gaining on us. I could hear his panting breaths, his feet slamming against the dirt and crushing dead leaves. He was gaining ground with every stride. I couldn’t help it; I had to look. It would only be a second. I turned my head and saw that the man was no longer there, but we were still being chased. In his place was a wolf. Its sandy blonde fur shone in the sun along with its sharp bared canines. I caught a quick glimpse of the wolf’s eyes. They were way too intense, staring after them with the cunning and calculation of a predator. There was something about its eyes. The too intense blue gaze was all too familiar. This isn’t right, I thought. Wolves don’t live around this area and they definitely don’t resemble mysterious men that roam the forest!
It didn’t matter; we just needed to run. I kept an eye on Emily as she ran in front of me. At least one of us needed to make it out to go get help. I quickly glanced behind us to see how close the malicious animal was. To my horror, a tree root snagged my foot and sent me crashing to the ground with a yelp. I struggled to gain purchase on the ground, but it was too late. I felt the pressing weight of the wolf on top of me. Its hot breath sent chills up my spine and it coarse fur scratched at my bare legs. There was a searing pain in my calf and a scream tore out of my throat. I thrashed, my foot connected with the wolf’s muzzle and was followed with a satisfying whine. The animal let go of my calf long enough for Emily to help me to my feet.
We continued to run, my side burning with every step. The pain in my calf made me nauseous and all I wanted to do was stop. Emily wouldn’t let me and together we reached the electric fence that marked my property. We rolled under the wire, hoping it would slow the wolf down long enough to get away.
“Mahlia, your leg!” Emily pointed. Her face was full of panic and concern.
“Oh, gods,” I didn’t want to look.
I tentatively inspected my left foot, too afraid to look at my calf. My once blue sneaker was in shreds and what was left of the material was turning bright scarlet. My stomach turned as my eyes traveled up to my calf. I was bitten alright, neat rows of deep puncture wounds oozed vivid red blood that dripped into the grass below. I was mesmerized by the slow drip-drip-drip of the red liquid until Emily whispered my name.
I looked up to see her staring past the fence and I followed her gaze. The man from the woods was straightening out of crouch. His feet tucked underneath his body like a feral animal. He glanced down, nodded in approval, and disappeared back into the forest with that gorgeously sinister smirk on his face. Emily and I stared down at the bite wound, both of us thinking the same unimaginable thing.
“No. No, it’s not possible.” I whispered as a single tear raced down Emily’s cheek.